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Scientists can't contain joy after finding bird they thought went extinct: ‘Like finding a unicorn’
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Scientists can't contain joy after finding bird they thought went extinct: ‘Like finding a unicorn’

'The way this was always going to work is that we just really lean into local knowledge and put our faith in our local partners.'

Cover Image Source: Twitter/@JasonJGregg | Vimeo/
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In a month-long hunt for something that most likely didn't exist, the researchers traveled thin mountain ridges, crossed and recrossed rivers that roared through canyons covered in the tropical jungle, and put up with bloodthirsty insects and leeches. Before they had to depart Fergusson Island, which is off the east coast of Papua New Guinea, they just had a few hours left to do their search.

Jordan Boersma, the expedition's co-leader, estimated that their chances of success were less than 1%. Winded by the hike, he sat down to regain his breath on a green hillside and started browsing the pictures on the camera traps he had just acquired, not expecting to uncover anything. “Suddenly I was confronted with this image of what at that time felt like a mythical creature,” says Boersma, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. What he was seeing was the Black-naped pheasant pigeon, a species that hasn't been recorded by biologists since it was first named in 1882, was clearly visible on the camera's tiny LCD.

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“It was, without exaggeration, the most surreal moment of my life,” Boersma added. The researchers say that this amazing late-September rediscovery would not have been possible without the help of local hunters with in-depth knowledge of the island's forests. This shows the crucial role that Indigenous communities play in ongoing efforts to reintroduce species that Western science has lost track of. The Black-naped Pheasant-existence Pigeon's has now been proven, making it probably certainly the most endangered species in New Guinea.

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This highlights the urgent need to safeguard Fergusson, a rough, 555-square-mile island that, while largely undeveloped, faces pressure from logging corporations. “To find something that’s been gone for that long, that you’re thinking is almost extinct, and then to figure out that it’s not extinct, it feels like finding a unicorn or a Bigfoot,” says John C. Mittermeier, director of the lost birds program at American Bird Conservancy and a co-leader of the eight-member expedition. “It’s extraordinarily unusual.” 

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The American Bird Conservancy, Re:wild and BirdLife International collaborated on The Search for Lost Birds, which provided funding for the expedition. More than 150 avian species that have not only not been sighted for at least ten years but also have not been officially declared extinct are being sought after by the program. The Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon, a ground-dwelling, chicken-sized pigeon, is one of about 20 "lost" birds that have not been identified for more than a century. Only located on Fergusson Island, it is one of four pheasant-pigeon species that inhabit New Guinea.

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“This is a huge discovery,” says Bulisa Iova, an expedition member and acting chief curator of the National Museum and Art Gallery in Papua New Guinea. “I have studied birds for many years and to be part of this team to discover this lost species is a highlight for me.”


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Boersma previously conducted a hunt for the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon in 2019 alongside local biologist Doka Nason and conservation expert Jason Gregg. The group did not discover the bird during that expedition, they did discover five bird species that had not previously been thought to exist on Fergusson, indicating that there were substantial gaps in the knowledge of ornithologists on the island's bird population. As they conversed with hunters, they learned of accounts of a bird that could only be a pheasant-pigeon.

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Early in September, the researchers made their way back to Fergusson with a larger crew, determined to build rapport and collaborate closely with the island's Indigenous people in pursuit of the species. They traveled the challenging terrain day after day, pausing to speak with locals and staying in communities or setting up camp in the woods. The big bird the researchers described was unknown to the hunters in the first few settlements. But as the group arrived at the isolated western slope of Mount Kilkerran, they started to run into indigenous persons who knew the species and called it Auwo. “The way this was always going to work is that we just really lean into local knowledge and put our faith in our local partners,” Boersma says. “That’s what delivered this incredible moment for us.”

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